The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is a western epic and follows three morally questionable gunslingers searching for $200,000 in buried gold in a cemetery. The information about the location of the gold is divided up between them – one knows where the cemetery is; one knows the name on the gravestone where the gold is buried and the other only knows of the existence of the buried gold. So they must work together – for a time.
The film operates in grey areas with the description of each of the lead characters in the title merely acting as broad strokes, but there is much more to them than that. Blondie (Clint Eastwood) is “The Good”, but he makes his living as a bounty hunter. However, we can -in the small moments- see that he is the good of the three, Angel Eyes (Lee Van Cleef), ‘the Bad’ is clearly not a good man, but he is still seen to have some sort of moral code. Tuco (Eli Wallach) is ‘the Ugly’ and he is by far the most eccentric of the three and has only self-interest at heart. They are, however united by one thing – greed.
Eastwood’s ‘The man with no name’ is given no backstory, although he does, here, have a name, Blondie. The performance of Clint Eastwood is not only noteworthy here, but in ‘A fistful of dollars’ and ‘For a few dollars more,’ which makes up the unofficial trilogy. The image of Eastwood in his famous poncho against a baron western backdrop will never be forgotten and will continue to be synonymous with the western genre, as much as the image of Don Corleone stroking a cat is with crime films and Luke Skwalker facing down a double sunset is to Sci-Fi films. But it is Eli Wallach’s Tuco who steals the show here. He is utterly duplicitous and in equal parts conniving and foolish. However as he makes a fool of himself we sense that it is an act, one learned over the course of his life. The other two men prefer not to waste words but for Tuco the opposite is true and it's often what gets him into trouble. Wallach is inspired as he takes what could have been a ridiculous character and makes it his own, it's endlessly watchable.
Throughout, we are treated to sprawling vistas of director, Segio Leone’s vision of the ‘Old West’ with the camera frequently panning across vast Western landscapes. The story is told mostly through pictures rather than words and it is through our exploration of the seemingly empty and desolate locales that we begin to understand how this world shaped the three men into what we know them to be. ‘Every man for himself’ is the sense we get from this vision of ‘the West’. It is a starkly different picture from the ones audiences at the time would have been used to. They were used to images of John Wayne riding off into the sunset after saving the day. The ending here is a little different.
Leone tells his story by putting his three main characters into different situations and seeing how they react in each one. He takes grand sequences and puts them together to make a film where the focus is away from a fluent story an on building up the main characters and creating some of the most memorable sequences in film history. The Civil War battle near the end of the film that Blondie and Tuco stumble across could easily be an entire feature film by itself.
Ennio Morricone’s theme -which was designed to mimic the sound of a howling coyote, becomes part of the world Leone creates and helps to build much of the tension, especially in the more long winded sequences, which could so easily come off to the audience as implausible and ridiculous, but instead help to keep us enthralled throughout. There are few scores in film history as iconic as this one, and fewer still that are so inextricably tied to the film itself, this elevates it to a level that has rarely been topped by any other film, perhaps the scores of ‘Psycho’ (Bernard Herrmann), ‘The Godfather’ (Nino Rota) and ‘Jaws’ (John Williams) are the only rivals to Morricone’s magnum opus. The film simply wouldn’t work without the score.
The climax of the film, at the cemetery is drawn out by Leone and as Morricone’s masterful ‘ecstasy of gold’ roars, the wide, long shots transition slowly into extreme close-ups of squinting eyes, sweaty faces and clawing hands, painting a vivid picture of the three main characters as each waits to shoot down the other two and take the promised gold. Tuco cowers in the proverbial shadows of the other two men whilst Blondie looks stoically onwards, unflinching. Angel Eyes’ hand creeps towards his gun only to recoil from Blondie’s glare. After the music builds up for several minutes to a climax, the fate of the men is decided in the diminuendo of the thunderous score.